Harpswell to vote on sharing Cedar Beach legal fees

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HARPSWELL — A proposal to use $110,000 in town revenue to help pay for the legal battle over access to Cedar Beach will go to voters in March. 

The Board of Selectmen on Jan. 22 approved a Town Meeting warrant article that would raise the money and direct it to a reserve account to reimburse Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters, the nonprofit group pressing for public access to the privately owned beach on Bailey Island.

Town Meeting is Saturday, March 14.

In a Jan. 21 email to selectmen, CB/CIS President Mike Helfgott expressed his pleasure with the warrant proposal.

“It’s gratifying to be at this point at which we are standing shoulder to shoulder with you as we seek to achieve what I believe is our common objective: to finally resolve the ‘Cedar Beach’ issue so our neighbors in Harpswell can have unfettered access to the beaches at the north end of Bailey Island,” Helfgott said.

If the article is approved, selectmen will have the authority to reimburse CB/CIS for the cost of its response to an appeal seeking to reverse a September 2014 ruling that enshrined legal public use of Cedar Beach Road.

The article authorizes payments to CB/CIS only for costs incurred after Sept. 15, 2014. The group has previously estimated that the cost of litigating the case from start to finish will be at least $220,000. 

Any unused funds left in the reserve account after Dec. 31, 2017, will be transferred back to the town’s cash reserves.

“This is a great moment and a great event,” CB/CIS Treasurer Martin Eisenstein told selectmen at the Jan. 22 meeting.  

“We have privately funded the litigation and we have come a long way,” he said, “and it’s because of the strength and the support that we have had from the community.”

Selectman Ellie Multer noted the group’s willingness to take on the case by itself.

“I think CB/CIS is an example of something you don’t see very often as you’d like to,” Multer said, “which is a group that puts its money where its mouth is.”

CB/CIS, which represents hundreds of Harpswell residents and visitors, has argued that its crusade for public access benefits the entire town.

In 2012, voters approved a $220,000 bond to acquire public rights to Cedar Beach and the road, but the approval lapsed at the end of 2014 and bonds were never issued.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, in an interview earlier this month, said that because the proposed funding is about legal fees, rather than a property deal, selectmen decided to opt for a direct appropriation instead of a bond.

CB/CIS has been fighting for legal access to Cedar Beach and Cedar Beach Road since 2011, when land owners abruptly prohibited public access to the area, which is popular with residents and summer visitors.

In 2014, voters approved an easement for part of the beach and established a beach monitor position to ensure rules were being followed, after CB/CIS brokered a deal with property owners.

The group failed to reach a similar agreement with Charles and Sally Abrahamson, the owners of the single-lane dirt road, and took the case to court. A three-day trial took place last May; afterwards, seasonal resident Betsy Atkins purchased the road from the Abrahamsons.

In September, Superior Court Judge Nancy Mills found in favor of CB/CIS, concluding in a 73-page ruling that a public easement existed on the road. Atkins is appealing Mills’ ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @PeteL_McGuire.